At Martin Luther King service, talk of legacy turns to politics

On the 30th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday, his daughter, Bernice King, spoke of distractions.

Popular reality and prime-time television shows like "Real Housewives of Atlanta" and "Empire" have "distracted" people into complacency over far more pressing socio-political issues, she warned the crowd packed inside Ebenezer Baptist Church for the annual commemorative service.

“While we’ve been distracted, new voting rights restrictions have been created” and the educational system has become “the worst in the world,” she said, also listing global warming and environmental justice as growing problems.

The event, the culmination of a multi-day celebration of King's legacy, typically draws a swath of elected officials, faith leaders and activists, and is often dominated by political calls to action.

Though it’s an election year, there was little to no mention of Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, despite a few intermittent words of support for President Barack Obama.

But that didn’t stop some of the speakers from criticizing GOP candidates.

Bernice King and Hispanic Federation President Jose Calderon took aim at Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, with King noting that a “reality show host” is trying to “bully” his way into becoming president.

The Rev. William Barber II, the keynote speaker and president of the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, had tough rhetoric for all candidates who, his view, tout King’s words but defy his legacy.

“The further we get away from Dr. King’s life, we must be careful, we cannot allow the same economic political establishment he opposed in life to re-frame his message and make it more palatable for materialistic schemes,” he said.

Barber, a self-described conservative Christian, called for the media to broaden its definition of evangelism, noting that "in a sense, Dr. King was an evangelical" and that "to be a true evangelical, you've got to preach the good news to the poor."

Barber went further, saying the term has been misappropriated “for a world view that is utterly devoid of prophetic critique.”

“Please stop saying these ‘evangelicals’ support a certain party,” he said. “God is not a Republican or a Democrat.”

Barber’s words came on the same day that Trump addressed a crowd at Liberty University in Virginia, where he dedicated what he called a record turn-out, estimated to be around 10,000 people, to the “late, great Martin Luther King,” according to CNN.

Back in Atlanta, much of the nearly five-hour service focused on King’s commitment to fighting poor housing conditions and discrimination in Chicago 50 years ago.

U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro, eyed as a potential Clinton running mate, said that King “knew that housing was about more than bricks and mortar. He knew that if you tell me where a family lives, I’ll tell you what jobs are available to them; where their children go to school; the quality of the air they breathe.”

Castro has made several visits to Atlanta in recent months after awarding a $30 million federal housing grant to the city in September.

Mary Lou Finley, who worked with King and former Ambassador Andrew Young in Chicago in 1965, praised King’s “open and loving response” to every day people, especially the youth.

"In this he gave us a glimpse of the beloved community," she said. "So now it's up to us to commit to the unfinished work."

Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, charge d’affaires to the U.S. embassy in Havana, drew parallels between King’s work in promoting human rights and individual freedoms and the normalizing of relations between the United States and Cuba.

“Dr. King may have never traveled to Cuba in his life, but his legacy …penetrates the hearts of minds of many there and here,” he said.

Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, Ebenezer Pastor Raphael Warnock — who briefly considered a run against Isakson for his senate seat — Congressman Sanford Bishop, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell also spoke during the service.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed did not attend as he spent Monday campaigning for Clinton in Iowa.

Mitchell, who may seek a run for mayor in 2017, said Atlantans must address high poverty rates, income inequality, lack of affordable housing and other issues within the city.

“If we are going to be honest with ourselves, we have a lot of work to do, and there is a long way we’ve got to go,” he said.

Isakson, who announced his struggle with Parkinson’s disease last year, said he has attended the King service roughly two dozen times since 1983.

“Our commitment today on this commemoration should be that we will be the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King and all that he did for peace, for tranquility, for faith and for justice,” he said.

The civil rights leader, who was assassinated in 1968, would have been 87 this year.